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Review: 'Start-Ups: Silicon Valley'


Producer Randi Zuckerberg calls Bravo’s new reality show “authentic.” If you believe that, we’ve got a new app to sell you

Photograph courtesy Bravo/NBC

Producer Randi Zuckerberg calls Bravo’s new reality show “authentic.” If you believe that, we’ve got a new app to sell you

In that so-terrible-it’s-great James Bond film A View to a Kill, the diabolical Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) intends to destroy Silicon Valley by means of a man-made earthquake, giving him a monopoly on semiconductor production. If Silicon Valley resembled anything like what was being shown in the first episode of Bravo’s (CMCSA) new reality series Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, I would gladly have been Mr. Zorin’s henchman. When I’m on my deathbed, I won’t be accepting of my demise. I’ll be angry because I’ll know there are 44 minutes owed to me from 2012, minutes lost to this sham of a show.

Here’s the premise of Start-Ups: A half-dozen not-very-bright young things are living in the Bay Area seeking fame and fortune. They all sort of know each other in that manufactured Bravo way. There’s a nod to the idea that “tech” is the central theme, and venture capitalists and angel investors are the means to a lucrative end, but those terms are heard so rarely that they could just as easily have been “record producer,” “Donald Trump,” or “Alaskan crab boat.”

Reality shows are not Barbara Kopple productions. But if you’re going to distort the truth, manufacture conflict, and present people shallower than a dinner plate from the Kate Hudson Kitchen Kollection, at least be entertaining about it. At least populate it with grotesque exaggerations of almost-humans that I can laugh at and feel superior to. Right?

Start-Ups doesn’t entirely fail in that last regard. Its characters run the gamut from narcissistic idiocy all the way to petty sociopathy. Our cast includes Ben and Hermione Way, a British brother-sister duo who’ve come to California with a DOA startup that sounds identical to existing products like Fitbit and Nike+ (NKE) FuelBand; Sarah, a self-promoting “lifecaster” who does nothing but crash parties and participate in the vapidly dark art of marketing and promotions; Dwight, a coder who claims he has a “Puritan work ethic for work and partying” (I tried to unpack all the ways that statement was wrong but had a seizure before I could finish); Kim, the ambitious self-hating Midwesterner who saw Glengarry Glen Ross but didn’t get the joke; and David, a plastic surgery addict who once worked at Google (GOOG) and has a none-too-shabby degree from Carnegie Mellon in computer science, but who’s primary purpose on the show is to be naked and gay.

All of these people are in Silicon Valley to … well, it’s not really clear what they’re there for, other than to “make it.” There are passing mentions of business plans, and Ben and Hermione do have a disastrous visit with venture capitalist Dave McClure—including ridiculously staging Hermione being “hung over” and taking a nap under the conference table while waiting for McClure to arrive (these kids are just crazy!). But the other 40 minutes of the first episode are taken up with poolside chats, a toga party, some worthless fight between Hermione and Sarah (not even an actual fight, just the detritus of recrimination), and a lot of drinking. Oh, and Ben had a thing with Sarah once, and Kim likes Dwight, and—oh, who cares?

It’s not just that these people are terrible—terrible can be watchable. Villainy can be delightful. But this crew is like a six-pack of nonalcoholic beer: It’s lousy and doesn’t even get you drunk.

Even the most dreadful reality show can still perform the documentary act of exposing viewers to a world different from their own. It may be altered and goosed and heightened, but watching, say, The Real Housewives of Orange County does in fact show you something about life in Orange County. The problem with Start-Ups is that there’s absolutely nothing that’s reflective of the place and culture that is Silicon Valley. And that’s the final shame of it, because someone could do a really interesting take on the Valley and what’s going on there now. After all, it’s a geographic location that is also shorthand for an industry and a scene. And it’s a scene that clearly has captured the attention of young professionals and, to some degree, the general public.

Certain customs and values in Silicon Valley would be worth exploring. There’s the world of venture capital and the people behind those firms who are, to a point, the gatekeepers of success. There are a fair number of extremely educated people who spend day and night in front of a monitor working on the unglamorous task of coding an application. There are massive efforts to recruit talented engineers. There’s the promise of Croesus-like wealth, though of course most startups are destined to go under. (Oh, and one other thing, Bravo: There are some nonwhite people in Silicon Valley, too.) Not that these elements necessarily make for a good reality show. These shows thrive on drama and conflict and broad personalities you can see a mile away. But they also do give you a sense of place. I watched Start-Ups and felt like I could be sitting through any Real World episode that ever aired.

Start-Ups: Silicon Valley is executive produced by Randi Zuckerberg, Mark’s dilettante sister, whose master plan includes hosting a talk show. When it came to this project, Zuckerberg said her role was to “[help] make sure that Bravo could capture the real, authentic Silicon Valley.” Based on the evidence, it would appear that Zuckerberg uses words like “real” and “authentic” about Silicon Valley the same way Taco Bell (YUM) might toss them in when describing a Meximelt.

Photographs courtesy Bravo/NBC

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and the managing editor of Bloomberg Digital Video. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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